How to Find Zen in Street Photography

Whisper , Mumbai, India 2011

(“Whisper”. Mumbai, 2011)

When it comes to street photography, it is easy to get caught-up in the hype of new cameras, spending too much time on blogs, and not enough time out shooting. I think one of the most difficult things in street photography is to find enough time to shoot and being able to also relax when out on the streets.

I suffer lack of focus, obsession about gear, and also not enough time out shooting on the streets. It is a battle I constantly fight with myself to change. If you ever felt that you have had difficulty finding focus in street photography, hopefully this advice I will share will help you. Also included in the article is some of my unpublished work from 2011, hope you enjoy!

1) One camera, one lens


“Sneeze” – Downtown LA, 2011

I don’t own one camera and one lens. I currently a Leica MP and a 35mm f/2 Summicron for my street photography, a Leica M6 as a backup, a Hasselblad 501cm and 80mm I just got from my buddy Jeroen Helmink for teaching a workshop in Amsterdam, an old Contax IIIa and a 50mm I inherited from my grandfather, an Olympus Pen Mini that I use for my workshop snapshots, and the camera on back of my new iPad.

I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to own a lot of cameras and lenses. After all, a chef also has many knives and equipment to make different dishes.

However the danger arises when having too much gear is a burden and prevents you from actually going out and shooting street photography.

About 4 years ago when I used to shoot with my Canon 5D, I had a 24mm f/2.8, a 35mm f/2, and a 50mm f/1.8. I remember whenever I was out shooting on the streets, it would always be a burden to carry more than one lens with me. Not only did it add to the weight of my bag, but also it prevented me from focusing when shooting street photography.

I would be shooting with my 35mm and be fine, then suddenly I would see someone across the street. I would then switch to my 50mm. I would then enter a crowded area and then switch on my 24mm. I would then again enter a less crowded area and screw back on my 35mm.

It was stressful to always be changing my lenses and concerning myself to always use the “ideal” focal length for a given situation.

One day I read the philosophy of “one camera and one prime lens” when out shooting street photography. I thought it was complete bunk. What would I do if my subject was too far, too close, or somewhere in-between?

Although I thought it was crazy, I thought about giving it a shot. I first had to figure out what focal length I preferred the most, and went to my Lightroom library and tried to figure out what lens I was using the most. Although I used all my 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm, I found out I was using my 35mm primarily around 90% of the time.

From that moment forward, I decided to dedicate myself to shooting exclusively with my 35mm and I haven’t looked back.

At first it was a bit difficult to get used to the idea of one focal length, after all what if your subject was too far or too close?

I found it was simpler than I thought. Simply move your feet and use “foot zoom”.

I found my photographs became more creative as I put the constraint on myself of using one focal length. As I discovered in a book on creativity titled: “Imagine: How Creativity Works” is that “In order to break out of the box, you must put yourself into shackles”. The author used the analogy that many poets who use artificial constraints (like haikus where the word and syllable structure are very rigid), it causes the poet to be more creative.

Furthermore, I was a lot less stressed when shooting on the street, as I would focus on actually taking photographs, rather than worrying about using a different lens or actually wasting time to screw on a new lens.

Even when I changed my camera from a Canon DSLR to a Leica, I still shoot with a 35mm (and it is the only lens I own with my Leica). Now that I have shot with a 35mm exclusively for around 4 years, I know the frame inside out. For example:

  • 35mm @ 1.2 Meters: Shot vertically, generally the top of someone’s head to their torso. Shot horizontally, the top of someone’s head to the middle of their ribcage.
  • 35mm @ 2 Meters: Shot vertically, generally full-body shot (from their head to the bottom of their feet)
  • 35mm @ 3 Meters: Generally the distance of an average-sized sidewalk (from one side to the other). Shot horizontally, generally a full-body shot of someone (from top of the head to the bottom of feet).
  • 35mm @ 5-7 Meters: Generally the distance between one side of the street to the other side of the street

Carrying less gear with me when I went out shooting was also a lot easier on my back, which also helped me enjoy the actual experience of shooting on the streets much more enjoyable.

2) Simplify your photos and approach

“Nails” – Downtown LA, 2011

It is hard to take a street photograph that isn’t busy in the background. 99% of the street photographs I take are generally very distracting, as there are always random heads, hands, legs, people, or cars that distract in the background.

Therefore I always try to simplify my photographs by using the saying, “less is more”.

Nowadays the trend is to try to create overly complex frames, similar to that of Alex Webb. Although there are some people out there who do it well, it is often ridiculously difficult and is about 99.9% failure. I don’t discourage shooting in this manner, but realize that editing is going to be much more crucial.

I say go opposite and make your photos simpler, and less complex.

Rather than trying to get too many people in the frame, single into one subject. If you find an interesting subject, also consider the background. Once again, the majority of my shots don’t work because the background is too distracting, and I have found the work of many others to not work because of a bad background (no matter how interesting the subject is – after all a good photograph should have a strong subject and background).

One thing I learned from my friend Charlie Kirk is if you are walking on the sidewalk, don’t shoot toward the street (you will get distracting cars, don’t shoot down the street (you will get distracting people in the b/g), but rather shoot toward storefronts (as the background is generally cleaner and less busy).

Therefore if you are in a city where cars drive on the right side of the road, walk on the left side of the sidewalk and shoot toward the right. If the cars in your country drive on the left side of the road, walk on the right side of the sidewalk and shoot toward the left.

If you want to shoot multiple subjects, I recommend starting off with 3 subjects in a frame (generally odd-numbered people in a frame work the best – 1, 3, 5, people etc.). Either try to get a primary subject central in the frame, and two other people accompanying them on the left and right side of the frame. If you want to do multiple subjects (5 or more), try to section them off in the frame with equal space in-between their heads, and to fill the frame.

Try to keep the photograph balanced, and not too many subjects on the right side of the frame or on the right side of the frame.

One tip I have when it comes to judging your own images (to see if they are balanced) is to imagine putting your photograph on a balancing beam. If you were to put the photograph on a balancing beam, would it lean to the left? To the right? Or would it stay balanced in-between?

I think one of the fallacies I fall into is “trying to be too clever”. Considering that the majority of the people on the Internet only have a short attention span, you need to have a strong image that is immediately apparent what is going on in the frame. If there is a small detail in the bottom left of the frame that you think, “makes the shot” – it will generally get lost.

Start off by trying to create a simple street photograph that immediately grabs your viewer’s attention, and try to capture little details around the frame that are interesting to the viewer as well. If you get a photograph of a man eating an ice cream cone, is there another kid in the background also eating an ice cream cone? Or a sign in the background that says “fat free?” Or a little chubby kid that could add to the message about obesity?

It is very difficult to capture simple street photographs that are powerful. As mentioned earlier, 99.9% of the photographs I take are often too busy, but I try to only show my best photographs (that are simple) through the editing process (choosing my best images).

Try to subtract from the frame, not add to the frame. After all, that is what sculptors do; start off with a solid slab of stone and constantly chip away at it to uncover the hidden & beautiful statue beneath.

3) Get lost in the moment

“Haze” – Downtown LA, 2011

What I love most about street photography is that it is an escape from the stresses of everyday life. One of the things that Zen Buddhism states is to “live in the moment”.

Therefore when you are out shooting street photography, turn off all distractions (your music, your phone, etc.) and focus shooting on the streets. If you are going to be shooting with friends, enjoy your time with them. If you are going to be shooting with yourself, focus on shooting and not stressing out about the bills you have to pay, the fight you just got in with your loved one, or the presentation you are working on at work.

One thing I also suggest is not chimp when shooting street photography. Why? It disrupts the flow of shooting street photography, as there is always an abrupt break when you have to check your LCD screen after taking a shot. It also disconnects you from your environment. An analogy I can think of is that it is like checking a text message for a second when having dinner with a friend. You suddenly freeze, stop eating and talking with your friend, and check your phone. Sure you can still talk, but you will not give it your full attention.

I used to be addicted to chimping, and even when I tried to stop, the urge persisted. However it is like trying to stop smoking. Checking your LCD screen is like getting a hit of nicotine. I never smoked (so I don’t know how difficult it is to quit) but from my friends who have quit smoking they gave me two strategies:

a) To stop cold turkey:

Some smokers say that by quitting smoking cold-turkey (and not making any exceptions for smoking – even at parties) they generally stay off of it.

Therefore to stop chimping, tell yourself that you will never check it (not just once in a while or else the habit will persist).

b) Get external help:

Some smokers I know use those nicotine patches or e-cigarettes that help them ease off smoking, and then stop all together.

When I was shooting street photography digitally, I was pretty good at not chimping the majority of the time, but the other percent of the time I would lose my willpower and of course check too often. It caused me to miss more decisive moments than I would care to talk about.

Switching to film helped me stop chimping all together. After all, you physically cannot chimp no matter how bad you try!

Chimping in itself isn’t something bad. You will need to chimp if you are trying something new (new shutter speeds, new apertures, zone-focusing, new camera, new focal length, using a flash, etc.). However once you get used to your settings, chimping will cause you to lose your sense with the street, and miss “decisive moments”.

Remember that street photography (and life) isn’t just about the end result. Life is about the journey, not the destination.

Street photography is about the journey and experience of shooting the streets. Hearing the conversations of people chatting about the drama of their lives, the vibration of your shoes hitting the rock-hard asphalt, or the feeling of your finger hitting the shutter.

Street photography is about the journey, not just the final picture.



“Whisper” – Mumbai, 2011

Practice the tenants of minimalism and Zen when it comes to your street photography. Constantly strive to simplify your approach, your equipment, as well as your images. Subtraction is often more difficult than addition, especially in the jam-packed cities we live in.

Don’t always pre-occupy yourself with the final image, and experience the journey of shooting street photography. The process of shooting street photography is often as rewarding (if not more rewarding) than the pictures.

Nobody is perfect, and neither am I. I fall victim to all of the distractions mentioned earlier in the article. However I constantly remind myself to try harder and stay focused, in which I get support from my fellow street photographers all around the world – and from you, the one reading this article and being a part of this street photography community.

If you can’t remember anything from this article, just remember to pucker your lips when in the streets and tell yourself, “K.I.S.S.” Keep it simple stupid.

Want to learn more?

Introduction to Street Photography Workshop in Melbourne, with Michael Baranovic

If you want to learn more hands-on instruction on how to find zen in street photography, overcome your fear or shooting street photography, or to take your work to the next level – check out my upcoming street photography workshops:


7/21-7/22: Paris, France – Intro – More info – Few spots left!

8/31-9/2: New York City – More info – with Adam Marelli

9/17-9/21: Venice/Verona – All levels – More Info – with Adam Marelli

10/13-10/20: 7 Day Street Photography California Coastal Cruise – Info

12/9-12/15: Calcutta, India – Week-long Immersion Course – More info & Register Intent


1/11-1/13: Manila, Philippines – Intro – (email Jeff Merceder at for more info)

1/18-1/20: Manila, Philippines – Intermediate/Advanced – (email Jeff Merceder at for more info)

How do you stay focused when shooting street photography and how do you add minimalism to your work? Share your thoughts, ideas, comments, and feedback in the comments below!

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  • Jason Zeis

    Great article!
    Although I think you meant to say “2012:” and 2013:” in the dates for the workshops!

    • Eric Kim

      Cheers Jason and thx for the correction!

  • Nick Kenrick

    super article Eric. one thing re chimping . what i do is take a bunch of pics then sit down and take a break and THEN look at your pics. sometimes i find this helps me to see that e.g i wasn’t concentrating and needed to get closer etc . because at least the 2nd set may be better than the 1st

    • Eric Kim

      Yes – that is something that is better than chimping directly in the streets!

  • Helen Hill

    Alright Erik
    You have Inspired me to go Less
    or rather the Zen Path….Less is More
    So off I go …
    Choosing a 50 Cron ver V on my M4
    Thanks for the Inspiration !
    Cheers- Helen

    • Eric Kim

      Thanks for the support Helen! :)

  • Adrien

    Merci Eric for another great article and very practical advice. I like what you say about the interest of the experience more than the final result – and believe that how you live the experience will also influence your final result.

    The adventure is just down the block!

    • Eric Kim

      Definitely agree Adrien – the hardest thing in street photography is to appreciate your own backyard. After all, for everyone we all dream of going to Paris or NY – but people living there also feel bored of their own city!

  • R R Roy

    Stupid article

    • Eric Kim

      Dear RR – what did you not enjoy about the article? Will try to change it to make it better!

      • R R Roy

        Thank you for bothering to respond :) and sorry for being late in answering. I was busy all day.
        Let us start with the following statements –
        “Therefore I always try to simplify my photographs by using the saying, “less is more”. ”

        “If you want to shoot multiple subjects, I recommend starting off with 3 subjects in a frame (generally odd-numbered people in a frame work the best – 1, 3, 5, people etc.). Either try to get a primary subject central in the frame, and two other people accompanying them on the left and right side of the frame. If you want to do multiple subjects (5 or more), try to section them off in the frame with equal space in-between their heads, and to fill the frame. ”

        Don’t you think this is directly against the Winogrand philosophy of letting the photograph take care of itself. Do you know of any famous photographer who actually used/use to scientifically bisect the picture plane in this manner.
        If you go by this methodology of shooting then i must say your primary objective is to make a well crafted image rather than responding emotionally to a situation.
        Result will be same if you teach people to shoot in this way.

        ” Considering that the majority of the people on the Internet only have a short attention span, you need to have a strong image that is immediately apparent what is going on in the frame. If there is a small detail in the bottom left of the frame that you think, “makes the shot” – it will generally get lost.”
        Do you shoot to satisfy viewers ? Or yourself ?
        Do you want your students shoot to satisfy viewers ?
        I’ll be a dead man the day i do so. And why do ? This is not commercial photography.

        “Don’t always pre-occupy yourself with the final image, and experience the journey of shooting street photography.”

        You contradict whatever you have said :). I agree with a bit of modification –
        Never preoccupy yourself with the final image, and enjoy the journey of shooting street photography.



        • E

          I really agree here, don’t limit yourself to what you think the internet may want. Shoot what you like, what inspires you or touches you, and do so in a way you like and I think you’re on a path to great photography for yourself (and probably someone else out there too).. if you try to please an audience with a 5 sec attention span, they’ll forget you just as easily as you caught their attention.

          • Eric Kim

            Yes of course. I think an important thing to realize how much you want to please yourself vs please others. After all, we are social creatures and want to gain acceptance from others. I strive more toward pleasing others in my photography, but in the end I do it to please myself!

        • Eric Kim

          Dear RR,

          Regarding this statement: “If you want to shoot multiple subjects, I recommend starting off with 3 subjects in a frame (generally odd-numbered people in a frame work the best – 1, 3, 5, people etc.). Either try to get a primary subject central in the frame, and two other people accompanying them on the left and right side of the frame. If you want to do multiple subjects (5 or more), try to section them off in the frame with equal space in-between their heads, and to fill the frame. ”

          It was based less of that of Winogrand, and more of what I have been seeing in the work of Alex Webb and other images of balanced images. I love the work of Winogrand, and love the pure energy and raw emotion he put into his photographs too – and many of his photographs had strong balance as well.

          And agree with you on the part of shooting more on emotion!

          ” Considering that the majority of the people on the Internet only have a short attention span, you need to have a strong image that is immediately apparent what is going on in the frame. If there is a small detail in the bottom left of the frame that you think, “makes the shot” – it will generally get lost.”

          This is a tricky part. I feel that it goes both ways. You of course want to shoot in the end to please yourself, but at the same time you want to create images that please your audience. But once again, this depends on your personality type in my opinion – I shoot mostly for myself, but in the end of the day I want to create images that touch the lives of others.

          “Don’t always pre-occupy yourself with the final image, and experience the journey of shooting street photography.”
          Haha yes a bit confusing, but this was one of the final statements I wanted to say!

          Cheers and keep the great feedback coming.


          • R R Roy

            O.K, lets go back to the basics for a moment. When we talk about balance, we mean two types of balance 1) static balance 2) dynamic balance.
            When you say place the subject in the centre, two on the left and two on the right, you talk about static balance.
            Photographs of the masters are all dynamically balanced. Characteristics of dynamic balance are –
            1) Dynamic balance is not achieved with calculation but with instinct ( at least in street photography, but possible in landscape photography). Herein comes the Winogrand theory of letting the picture take care of itself.
            2) A dynamically balanced shot (unless staged) is not repeatable, even by the photographer himself. How many of Alex Webb photos (specially multiple people shots) do you think is repeatable by Alex Webb himself ?

            You are not being honest when you say – I shoot mostly for myself, but in the end of the day I want to create images that touch the lives of others.
            If so, then why do you stage photographs ?
            Mumbai policewoman shot above is staged as are many other of your photographs.
            Isn’t it better to paint than to stage photos.

          • Kaushal Parikh

            The Mumbai police woman shot was not staged. I was there with Eric when he shot that. Eric had a camera in one hand and a flash in the other so it was not a fly-on-the-wall technique he was using. She may have known he was about to take her pic and she may have reacted to that but that does not make it a staged shot.

          • R R Roy

            What about the man in the background ? He is clearly posing for the camera. And the man who is passing by ? He is also smiling, that means he has also noticed the shooting episode and is reacting, isn’t it ?:)

          • E

            Wow.. that’s a pretty strict definition of “not staged”! The fact that someone noticed the photographer doesn’t make it staged, it’s just their natural reaction to the photographer being present. It may not be what you want, but staged? Surely not.

          • R R Roy

            You are anonymous so i don’t know if you are Indian or non-Indian. For a non-Indian it’s difficult to understand what’s going wrong in that photo unless you have a good understanding of Indian male psyche.
            The man behind is holding his right hand with his left hand. From my experience of shooting Indian streets i know very well when a man will pose in that way.
            I can assure you there has been explicit dialogue between photographer and subjects before that shot was taken.

    • Toad_Scratcher

      Stupid comment, back it up with something…

      • R R Roy

        What type of back up do you need – words or photos

  • Fokko Muller

    KISS Keep It Street Simple :)

    • Eric Kim

      :))))) yes!!

  • conrado orcajo

    i keep wanting to go back to a 35mm, i have been using a 28mm now for about 2 months. articles like this don’t help my GAS! actually i’m doing better now, i sold off a bunch of DX gear that i don’t use. i have a 50mm and 28mm for my RF. i use a Bessa 3M and it doesn’t have viewfinder lines for a 35mm. if it wasn’t for that i’d pick one up! i do use a separate VF for the 28mm in the hot shoe. you’re making it harder for me staying away from buying a 35mm!! :) take care.

  • Raj Gohil

    Such a great article and helpful advice ………….for me one thing is for sure that no matter how good image i get, i still need to keep trying harder and stay focused…………the point which you mention regarding checking LCD screen , i totally agree although i think instead of checking them if i focus on shooting more will be better cause i check them later when i am done with shooting…and thank you for mentioning the points regarding 35mm…..when i started i was using 35mm and i still do but your points where really helpful……..thanks for mentioning it……

  • Devin Jones

    A lot of this stuff is just repeating what you’ve said in the past. You do contradict yourself quite a bit as well.

    Also, giving tips like this is great… if you want people to shoot the way you do. I get it, you’re sharing your experience and I’m sure it will be helpful to some newer photographers. Still, I think the best advice you can give is to go out and shoot, learn the ropes on your own, read books on photo theory, develop a lust for seeking out and consuming new photos. And to give that advice, you don’t need to create repetitive articles or expensive workshops. Then again, you wouldn’t stay relevant or make bank without doing that. Gotta crank out a new article every few days and keep your readership up.

    A novel idea: Inspire people with your photographs. Post more of your photos. Develop a body of work. Let that do the inspiring and selling for you. I think that’d benefit your readership more in the long-run.

    Or, perhaps you could write an advice column about how to become a street photography salesman. Get people hooked on a genre and make a lot of money while doing it. Get big names to sponsor you and constantly name drop for them. Tear the subjects of your photos down with sweeping, pseudo-intellectual generalizations. Repeat the same mantras over and over, but throw in some trending stuff as well, like the way mobile phone photography is set to become the future of street, right after telling everyone the reasons they should switch to film.

    Perhaps I disparage too much, as there are some genuinely great things on this blog, such as the street photographer features and the occasional photo essays. Maybe you could develop some kind of massive street photography links page where people can get lost looking at all the good street that’s out there by clicking links instead of having to sift through redundant articles and advertising.

    • Eric Kim

      Dear Devin,

      Thank you for the honest feedback and critique. I try to improve my knowledge in photography everyday by spending as much money I can on photobooks (theory as well as images), shooting everyday, as well as other books non-related to photography all together.

      I have also taken your advice and that of others by starting to show more of my unposted work. The majority of the shots in this article supplemented are new photos I haven’t showed. And I still have some more new work to share- especially color work I am excited to share!

      I really like your idea with a massive street photography links page (I’m trying to build this as we speak) that is here:

      And will try to feature more talented photographers. This blog isn’t perfect and still needs a lot of work. But supportive and honest feedback will help me better learn and improve!

      • Devin Jones

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

        As far as teaching street, I honestly don’t know how much of it can be taught. Sure, there are some basics to street, but after that, I think it gets a whole lot wilder and weirder. In my opinion, the real zen of street isn’t hints and tips. It’s going out and letting your heart meet your eye in unexpected ways.
        I think a lot of the stuff featured on this site is a distraction from people really finding their flow as a photographer. When I first got into street, you were quite an inspiration. These days I’m seeing a lot more of the stuff I mentioned above. I don’t want to be bombarded with what kind of camera I should use or what lenses or angles, that I should have a message or something. I’d like to see more pictures and interviews. For instance, I like “The Candid Frame” podcast because it offers fresh perspectives from all areas of photography and doesn’t preach.

        Enough about what I want, because at the end of the day it’s your blog, your thoughts, your job. To be honest, I think teaching is great if you inspire, but not so if you harden people’s creativity. You and this site do a bit of both to be honest.

        Perhaps it’s also because you’re trying to be all things to all people, new photographers, gear heads, people who want to see more features. Maybe narrow your focus?

        After my grievances though, I will say that I continue to tune in.

        Anyhow, that’s my view of it.

        If you’ve got some time and wanna keep talking, here or email is fine!

  • Kye

    Ah! I’ve been delivered from the world of digital photography, thanks to you. Shooting film has changed the way I shoot in so many ways, but above all, it has showed me that every shot I take isn’t going to be an award winning shot, and I’m comfortable with that. I still have taken 10,000 frames, so I have no expectation of shooting a truly inspiring photograph yet.

    Shooting film has made me less concerned with the act of taking a photograph (e.g. worrying about WB, ISO, various metering options, RAW v. JPEG etc.) and allowed me to focus on other aspects like the subjects in front of me, and overall composition. It also makes the post-processing so much easier because the “look” is primarily determined by the film type and processing technique.

    Shooting film also makes me visualize shots in my head before I click the shutter, which is helpful. I feel that the tendency with digital is to shoot everything that moves, making the photographer photographically schizophrenic. Just because you can fill a 32G memory card with hundreds, if not thousands, of photos is not really an advantage. It’s actually a disadvantage because you have to sift through so many crappy photos that it makes the editing process such a chore, if you edit at all. Then people fill the internet with these crappy photos, myself included.

    Eric, appreciate the blog and your insight. And so what if some of your articles are repetitive, it’s your blog. I imagine keeping up with a blog must feel like a full time job in itself. Keep up the good work.

  • Magali

    I think this is a very relevant article, Eric. Talks about things I’ve been thinking about for quite a while.
    I would love to shoot more street but I guess I’m not gutsy enough.
    PS- I’m from Mumbai & I’m surprised at the shot of the policewoman. It’s something I wouldn’t dare try. And now I sound like such a coward.

  • Gian James Gamones Maagad

    Just came from a basic/advance photography workshop, and read this article, simplicity is the key.

  • Mark A Welsh

    Anyone making a business from their photography and experience is going to be repetitive. Repetition is critical in reaching out to new readers and potential clients. Not all of us are going to send a check and take a workshop. Personally I would much prefer a printing workshop than a photgraphy workshop. but thats me.
    I think you do a great job Eric. There’s always a little nugget of information that gives me fresh eyes and fresh perspective to go out and find my way back to the streets.
    Shameless self promotion, repetition and hard work are how businesses become successful. My only criticism would be to maybe spend some time proof reading. Repetitive sentences and spelling mistakes don’t exactly leave a great impression.

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